Problems of Conscience

The problems in our world are many and range from the simple to the catastrophic. Most of us, at least in the western world, are not faced with crisis and desperation on a daily basis. For most of us, our problems are relatively trivial, even though it may not seem so to us. Of course, we are not exempt from difficulties, but our lives are relatively good. So, how is it that so many of us are able to retain a clear conscience and resist concern with or even deny that, for so many, major problems are a fact of life?

What is presented here is an attempt to explain the levels of conscience that people experience in relating to and accepting responsibility for suffering, tragedy or social problems in which they are not directly involved.


There are no good people. There are no bad people. There are just people.

“No”, you say to me, “I am a good person. I don’t kill people. I haven’t tortured anyone. I don’t even kick the cat or raise my voice to my children. I donate to charity and I’m kind to my family and my friends and I obey the law. I care.” — You may say that with conviction, and it may well be the truth and so my statements seem foolish and easily disproved. Apparently it is not that hard to define who is good and who is bad and for many people there is no doubt in their minds, even to the point that some will talk of “evil” and of “hate” and vow “revenge” for what they believe others have done to them or lavish praise on celebrities or public figures who they perceive to be paragons of virtue or achievement despite having no real evidence that such is so.

Israeli’s blame Hamas for shooting rockets into the settlements. Hamas blame Israel for bombing their villages and towns. Each side think that the other consists of “bad” people and that its actions are “bad” or even “evil.” Priests are seen as models of good character, respectability and honesty and yet, even leaving aside the horrors of history carried out in the name of religion, we constantly read of cases of paedophilia by priests and, as bad, it’s been known about and covered up by other church officers.

Of course, the mistake that’s made is that people are not their behaviours. “Good” people are capable of bad behaviour and “Bad” people are capable of good behaviour. Why? — Well because of what I stated originally, there are no bad or good people, there are just people who do bad or good things. Semantics? Some will argue so but I think not. What would you do in the following situation, for instance: You are a switch-keeper on the railway. You can see that on one line there is a train bearing down on 5 unsuspecting linesmen. You can change points to divert the train down another line where there is just one linesman working. What will you do? Actively make a change that will effectively murder the one man? Passively do nothing and allow the 5 men to die? That may be conundrum enough but consider how much more difficult might be the decision if either the one man is your friend or even brother, son or father — or if that brother, son or father is one of the 5? In all conscience, can you say that will not influence your decision?

“Ah”, you say, “but this is a hypothetical decision and such a situation highly improbable in our life. It will never really happen so I don’t have to take it too seriously. Let’s leave it to the philosophers as a puzzle for them to debate in their ivory towers.”

Our world is in crisis. Critical decisions meet most of us at some time in our lives and, perhaps without realising it, we make them every day. Usually we are unaware of their importance, of the “bigger picture” as it is known. We tend to take things at surface value and respond from habit, conditioning, socialisation or instinct — not recognising the potentially much wider significance of our decisions than those in our immediate context of time and space. Many of those decisions could be better ones but because we are human and necessarily concerned with ourselves and those closest to us, as well as being influenced by our environment, the media to which we are exposed, the government policy and what our neighbours and work colleagues think. With understanding, however, there is a way to recognise how you approach the needs of others and that understanding, in itself, may motivate you to seek change in your outlook or at least give you greater understanding of why you and others think as you do.

There are six stages that typify the attitudes of people towards significant problems that don’t involve them directly. I first came across these stages when working in child protection and they resonated so strongly with me that I have never forgotten them. Research has shown that we are far more likely to be concerned about those that are closest to us and those with whom we identify most closely. However, as humans we have the ability to think and reason and act beyond our instincts

Consider the following stages and where you stand on them in relation to the many perfidious acts that we humans inflict on our fellows, such as censorship, abuse, poverty, starvation, false imprisonment, torture, and etc.

1) Denial

Problem doesn’t exist. (I refuse to accept that it is anything other than what might be expected.)

2) Minimalisation

Problem exists. (Ok. You’ve got me. It does exist.)
Problem isn’t significant (but hey, it’s blown out of proportion, isn’t it?)

3) Blame

Problem exists. (Ok. I’ve accepted that.)
Problem is significant. (Yes, I guess it is fairly important.)
Those affected bring it on themselves. (They must have done something to bring this on themselves.)

4) Removal

Problem exists. (Yes, there’s definitely a problem.)
Problem is significant. (Yes, this is something that has serious consequences.)
Those affected are victims. (I can see now that the cause is beyond the control of those affected.)
Someone should do something. (Alright, I give in, it’s a good job we’ve got charities & the government should help, too.)

5) Conscience

Problem exists. (Yes.)
Problem is significant. (No doubt about that now.)
Those affected are *definitely* victims. (Let’s stop blaming them & look to real causes.)
Someone should do something. (Well, charities, government & others are doing things but it’s not enough.)
I should do something. (Perhaps I should find out more — there might be something I can do about it.)

6) Responsibility

Problem exists. (It’s big)
Problem is significant. (Affects many in severe and unconscionable way.)
Those affected are *definitely* victims. (There are causes well beyond the local issues)
Someone should do something. (Governments, charities & others are doing things but it is *everyone’s* problem)
I should do something. (It is *my* problem, too — I need to do something.)

I WILL DO SOMETHING (I share the World with all other species & need to accept my obligations to them.)

Will you?



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